The Occupational Crisis: Smart Strategies for Reputation Management (11/16/12)

If you’ve got a business and employees, you’ve got ingredients for a crisis. Whether it be an employee injury, a government agency inspection or other critical business issue, the steps you take now to manage a crisis will impact your organization’s reputation for the long-haul. Here is a sneak peek of a seminar I’ll be presenting for the Institute for Human Resources on December 6, 2012 entitled “10 Smart Strategies for Reputation Management after an Occupational Crisis.” I offer a sampling of my top strategies for taking good care of your reputation amidst workplace turmoil.

Strategy #1. Have a media plan. Most organizations are totally unprepared for media calls. Being unprepared can lead to unintended consequences: 1) You say things that are not helpful to your organization; 2) You don’t return reporter phone calls, and, as a result, you never get a chance to participate in the story; or 3) You respond with “No comment,” which can create the perception of guilt or wrongdoing. Having a plan gives you a model to respond and allows you to be strategic about how you engage the media, if at all. A plan allows you to be organized and thoughtful, instead of chaotic and reactionary. Perhaps most important, however, it avoids inaction—a deer-in-headlights response—which is a reputational death knell.

Strategy #2. Be responsive. If your organization’s response is not swift and meaningful, you will be viewed, at best, as irresponsible or incompetent; at worst, uncaring and culpable. Put yourself in your key stakeholders’ shoes, and ask the questions they are asking: “How does this affect me? What’s next for me? How will this wrong be made right?” To those questions, you must respond quickly so your stakeholders hear from you first, or least a close second if the matter has become public before you’ve communicated. Email is appropriate (be prepared for it to become public), and follow-up, in-person meetings are also warranted. When meeting face-to-face will achieve important strategic objectives, do so. Your non-verbal communications will have a lasting, profound and emotional impact. Warren Beatty’s insight rings true here: “People forget what you say but they remember how you made them feel.”

Strategy #3. Ensure accurate investigations. If your crisis involves a state or federal agency investigation, or a public safety entity like a fire department, make sure to carefully review any investigation reports, and seek correction if errors are present. Assuming the erroneous reports are public documents, the media will rely on those reports, which in turn result in erroneous media reports.

For the internal investigation, you may need to hire a 3rd party to achieve objectivity because sometimes interview subjects will misrepresent (intentionally or unintentionally) facts or problems. An experienced investigator can effectively determine what actually took place. All the benefits of being responsive, candid and transparent throughout a crisis can vanish when later you have to correct earlier, erroneous reports.

Strategy #4. Coordinate legal and communications strategies. This is a critical strategy and for good reason—inconsistent communications about what happened, who’s at fault, who’s liable, who’s at risk can impact your credibility and possibly create even greater legal risk and liability. For example, if your legal position or strategy is not yet known, then say as much: “We are evaluating our legal options.” This will serve you better than pointing the finger, issuing blanket denials or promising a vigorous defense in one instance, only to settle the matter in the next.

Strategy #5. Don’t get defensive. The natural tendency is to get defensive if you need to assume a defensive posture, particularly on legal matters. While it’s perfectly reasonable to defend yourself, be careful how you communicate your defensive position. Choose your words wisely – positive, affirmative, forward looking statements are more effective and received better by your audience than messages that are defensive, negative and self-justifying.

Socrates gets the final word. Protecting your business reputation requires careful planning, analysis and response. A reputation can also be bolstered, with everyone from your employees to government regulators to customers to shareholders, by heeding the words of Socrates —“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” If you desire to appear prepared, endeavor in preparing. If you desire to appear connected with your employees, endeavor in connecting with your employees. If you desire to appear concerned about worker health and safety, endeavor in creating and actively supporting a culture where health and safety is a deeply-held value.

Strategic communications, effective media relations and smart issues management come together to handle even the most difficult reputational challenges. I invite you to attend my seminar for the Institute for Human Resources on December 6, 2012 to learn more about my strategies for reputation management after an occupational crisis.

This post also appears at Reputation Rhino’s On-line Reputation Management Blog.